No more excuses

As a vice-principal, I often deal with students exhibiting challenging behaviour.  Part of my responsibility when investigating what happened is to ask questions.   The first question, as anyone would guess, is, “What happened?”  The student then gives the run-down on whatever it was that led to him or her sitting in the office.  And after a student would tell me what he or she did to land themselves in the office, what do you think I would ask next, inevitably?  You guessed it – “Why did you do that?” And what do you think I would get as an answer?  Either “I don’t know” or some sort of excuse that starts with “Because…”  I ask you, does the reason why matter?

Asking "Why did you do that?" leads to pointless excuses, or "I don't know."

I stopped asking “Why?” when talking with kids about challenging behaviour.  I found the answers I got to be pointless and unproductive to the discussion.  Often kids, especially younger ones, don’t really know why they did what they did, because it could very well have simply been an impulsive or thoughtless act.  Or, the question gives students the opportunity to dig for an excuse, which just goes to rationalize or justify their action.  It stalls or even undermines the process of reflection and accepting responsibility that leads to the child understanding the impact their actions had on others.  This understanding is the ultimate goal when working with students in conflict – helping them see how their actions have harmed a relationship with someone in their school community.

This is at the core of the restorative practices framework.  The focus is on getting kids to talk and express how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking, and to work together to find solutions to a problem.  It’s quite a shift from the punitive approach that is still prevalent in many homes and schools where adults impose consequences on the child rather than supporting a child into taking responsibility. 

 The International Institute for Restorative Practices created a list of questions to ask when responding to challenging behaviour that eliminated the “why” and focused on the “what”:

1.  What happened?

2. What were you thinking of at the time?

3. What have you thought about since?

4. Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?

5. What do you think you need to do to make things right?

 I challenge you, whether you are a teacher, an administrator or a parent, to drop the “why” from the conversation when you’re dealing with a conflict between kids. What kinds of conversations are you having now?

8 thoughts on “No more excuses

  1. Erin,

    I love the IIRP questions. Thank you for reminding me of them – they are powerful for moving the conversation towards acceptance of responsibility.

    Great to see you today – sorry it was rushed – ‘stuff’ back at the school and trying to figure it out – you know how it is!


  2. Erin,

    Great post. I use the Boys Town model when dealing with student behavior and these two systems seem very similar. My goal is to reinforce positive behaviors we want to see at school rather than handing out a punishment. My ultimate goal is to get the student back into the classroom as soon as possible. You’re right on the mark when you discussed the pitfalls of ‘why’ questions. Great post and keep em coming!

    • Thanks for pointing me towards the Boys Town model. I like that it’s a proactive and therapeutic approach rather than one that is punitive and corrective in nature. Bringing kids into the conversation to have them be active participants is key to the learning.
      Thanks for the comments!

  3. Erin,

    There is no doubt that within the course of a regular day (if there is actually such a thing) we encounter some of the challenging situations you have described above.

    Although asking the question ‘why’ doesn’t always lead to the response we are looking for, ultimately ‘why’ is the question that we do need answered. I like to ask the question ‘How did that make you feel?’ When I ask them to replay the sequence of escalating events leading to their being asked to come to the office, I also ask them to identify different point(s) at which had they acted differently may have led to a more positive result.

    It is also important to ask students to consider how the other person/people they were in conflict with may have been feeling throughout the situation. I believe it is important for students to recognize how their behaviour impacts other people.

    There is one additional layer to some of the issues that we work through. If the person that the student is having difficulties with is the teacher, it is very important that we ask the teacher to consider what he/she could have done differently in order to prevent the difficult situation. It’s also important that we provide the teacher any background information about a student that he/she may not know about. Usually, the student who presents challenging behaviour in one class is experiencing much greater success in another class. When this is the case, it’s important for the respective teachers to share their strategies and experiences with one another.

    It is kind of funny that you chose this title for your blog because I used the same title not too long ago. Interestingly enough, while your blog addressed the excuses that students offer, my blog challenged educators not to make excuses for why some of their students aren’t learning. In many ways we are addressing similar issues, your blog from the student perspective and my blog from the teacher perspective. I encourage you to check it out.

    At the end of it all, I still find myself returning to the importance of establishing positive relationships with kids. I find that this goes a long ways towards students being truthful, taking ownership and truly listening to advice.

    Thanks for the post. It is definitely making me reflect on how I approach these types of situations.


  4. Thanks Aaron. And thank you for the link to your blog. I’ve added it to my links section.

    I agree knowing the motivation behind some actions can be helpful, (and I certainly don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water) and working in a secondary school, your students may be more able to articulate this. I like asking the students “What were you thinking?” rather than “why”. I get much richer answers that tend to provide more information to me and to the student him/herself. For instance, I had two primary boys in my office because one shoved the other while lining up to come inside for recess. When I asked the ‘shover’ what he was thinking at the time, he said, “I was thinking that I would get in trouble from my teacher if I let ____________ get in the front of the line because she asked me to save it for someone else.” That’s more productive to a discussion than “He was butting the line.” which in past is the type of answer I used to get. The former statement led to a discussion about the impact on the other student, different choices the could have been made, and the other student got an opportunity to express his thoughts and the impact on him (I was embarrassed that he yelled at me). The IIRP offer a set of questions for the person harmed to help guide that part of the discussion too:
    -What did you think when you realized what had happened?
    -What impact has this had on you and others?
    -What has been the hardest thing for you?
    -What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

    It sounds like we are both having similar discussions with our students with the same goals in mind. Thank you for your insights. They definitely left me thinking.


  5. Erin, thank you for these questions. Aaron nails it on the head about positive relationships. I’ve experienced that the conversations I have around discipline mostly involve students whose home-life may not be rich in communication. In fact, the other day, when I spoke with a student regarding a behavior incident, I moved the discussion to post-high school opportunities. The 14-year old girl’s response was that she didn’t even want to be in school and that she would rather work at Portillo’s, (a fast-food restaurant). When I continued about graduating, going to college, and earning a career, she said that is crazy and her family would laugh at her for such a decision. It saddened me.
    But, I will not give up on her. I will continue to check up on her and not talk to her as a parent, but as someone who will listen, advise, and guide.

  6. The more I reflect on my experiences working through some of these challenging situations, I realize that the students that are most receptive to my comments and advice are the ones who I have already established a reasonable degree of trust with. Developing trust doesn’t happen overnight and is not something that students immediately feel they owe us simply because we are adults. In some cases, our students have endured situations where an important adult has broken their trust. Developing trust with our students takes time and should be at the forefront of what we do everyday. I try my best to learn and address students’ by their names, talk to them about something positive they did when I see them in the halls, attend their extra-curricular events and stop to talk to them about about how a specific class is going. Really, these are all just ways of saying I care about them and what they are doing.

    When it comes right down to it, when our students truly know that we care, they are far more likely to trust us, our ideas and our suggestions.

    So I guess what I am saying is we can take big steps towards solving some of these challenging situations by proactively laying a foundation with our students that is based on positive, trusting, supportive relationships.


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